Monday, May 07, 2007

Hotmail -- it's not your momma's Gmail!

I'll preface this by saying I'm looking for employment, and Microsoft is definitely one of the companies for which I'd like to work. At the same time, and at the risk of being deuced by them, the new Hotmail is another example of the wide gap between Web 2.0 and Microsoft. (Hint: if you hire me, I'll help you out!).

I was really looking forward to checking out the new Hotmail. Having shown my spouse and friends the glory of gmail as opposed to clunky old Hotmail, I was really looking to see whether I should leapfrog back to Microsoft for my mail browser. After all, 2Gb does get eaten up eventually, and it would be nice to go to a web browser (the primordial SaaS!) with great features.

Alas and alack. The one thing I looked for wasn't. A simple thing. A little feature that spells the difference between software as a service and service as addiction.

  • Filters? Sort of check.
  • E-mail signatures? Check.
  • Bragging rights of being a beta tester? Check.
  • Mail forwarding? What, are you kidding? All your e-mail are belong to us.
In other words, Microsoft has made the terrible mistake of thinking that a really nice GUI could be a softer, gentler set of handcuffs than MS Outlook for keeping users corralled in MS-space.

Don't get me wrong, Google (hosts of this blog, for the purposes of full disclosure) does the same thing. But Google's "handcuffs" are in the form form of great features that don't hem the user in. I could host this blog on my Windows-based web site just as easily as on a Linux one. And connect it to RSS feeds or other throughputs without thinking about the corporate underpinnings. Forward my e-mails to Hotmail, or a personally-managed e-mail server. That I'm using Blogger (and Gmail, and Google pages, and Google documents, etc.) is a testament not to my enslavement to the mighty Google, but to the forthright, non-acquisitive nature of their web tools.

This is unfortunately yet another example of the inner nervousness, the insecurity, that has scarred, not marked, Microsoft in this market. It's a great enough company, with fantastic enough features, not to have to create artificial limits on its users. And each limitation, no matter how trivial it might seem, is viewed as yet another indicator that Microsoft can't let go of it's craving for domination long enough to let the market see the good, the wonder, and the benign nature, of its products' feature sets.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Blinded by the ADA

A federal judge mandated that currency should be distinguishable by the blind, as an acquiescence to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

My spouses, comment: "Great, but when are they going to get around to helping the blind see the traffic lights so they can drive?"

It's true that there are possible solutions to give currency a better readability to the visually impaired. Bills could be different sizes, they could be notched, holed, or braille punched. But these non-visual cues would actually aid in the defrauding of the blind if they come to depend on these features. Right now they have no assumptions, beyond trusting the giver, that they have the correct currency. In a system where the braille might be correct for the denomination, they would depend less on their trust in fellow human, and more on an artifice that is much more easily modified than all the watermarks, threads, microprint and other visually-oriented rigamarole.

From a legal perspective, it also would put a huge burden on the federal court system. If a person gives the incorrect change to a blind person, short changes them in effect, that's misdemeanor theft. If they modify the currency to defraud someone, that's federal counterfeiting charges. There's really no way to push that kind of law down into the state or local systems, since currency is, well, federal.

Added to all this is the cost to change every one of the American currency manipulating machines. Counters, sorters, currency reading machines, ATMs. Sure, it can be done: all these sorts of equipment are used around the world, where there are lots of countries with differently-sized and -colored bills. But the cost to do all this, the user acceptance, is incredibly painful and will actually help counterfeiters defraud Americans even more.

All in all, I think marking currency for the blind is a bad idea.

The handicapped (differently abled, challenged, et al) are just that: working in a world where everyone has some kind of limiter that keeps some part of them from operating at 100%. Short, tall, fat, color-blind, dyslexic, dispeptic, depressed, manic, obsessive-compulsive, sloppy: you name it, someone has it.

Of course, people who are blind, deaf, or do not have even usual range of motion of legs or hands are at especial disadvantage. And the ADA has done a great job of ensuring that handicapped accessible spaces are the norm, not the exception (although that may be due to the "ahah!" moment of businesses, realizing that those in wheelchairs have credit cards too).

In the matter of currency, I think adapting 'reading pens'--small form-factor OCR readers--is a better solution than overhauling the entire treasury system. Just as we ensure that parking spaces nearest building entrances are reserved for the handicapped, we should ensure that the blind have cost-effective access to these kinds of reader tools. And, if they can't afford them, then the government (federal, state, local) should ensure there is a program for them to be either given away, purchaed, or lent.

An even better solution would be smart card readers or credit swiping machines that have the ability to vocalize transactions. That would keep cash out of the loop, and the blind consumer more in control over their money. Banks could provide blind users with free smart card or debit card services above and beyond sighted users. After all, it would drive both loyalty and keeping more cash where they can get their greedy hands on it.

And keep the currency, as with automobile driving, focused on the sighted user.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A Cheap Solution to Save Lives in Iraq

Phantom checkposts are easily set up and lethal to civilians and soldiers alike. With all the technology deployed to keep people safe, solving this problem is a no-brainer.

IFF (Identify Friend-Foe) is a forty-plus year technology geared to giving fighter pilots instant identification of planes in their area of battle. These radio transponders trigger a coded response whenever there is a coded query.

Checkposts could easily use this technology. Transponder codes would be changed daily, and checkposts would be issued a properly coded frequency. Vehicles approaching the checkpost could trigger an IFF request and, if they do not receive the proper response, know that they are driving into a trap.

If we wanted to get just a bit fancier, we could add a small satellite transmission package that would send the location and IFF codes up to US or Iraqi response teams every time an IFF mismatch occurred. That could get drones recording the scene, and air support on the way within seconds of a suspicious checkpoint being queried -- maybe even before the shooting starts.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

EULA weirdness


Dang. And I thought iTunes was the solution to everything.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Writing Tools... So close: Ooh, Missed!

I'm always looking out for a good tool to help in writing or mapping ideas. MindJet's MindManager is brilliant, if expensive for individuals, and not available on-line. PBWiki makes great tools for sharing ideas on-line. Google is helping me move a lot of my writing to the web by letting me move documents onto a universal desktop space. (To say nothing of Google Search itself, but I'm a bit biased towards that company.)

I'm hunting for the perfect -- or at least, usable -- idea mapping software. An acquaintance suggested Wridea. I checked it out and, sadly, have to say it takes writers back a notch in terms of usability. The fact that the software is affiliated with a mail list management company (read all those wonderful e-mails you don't want to receive) makes me leery of their motives in getting e-mail addresses from users and those with whom they share their idea maps. (Sorry, guys: smoke, fire, and all that jazz.)

If anyone has a better site for idea or story mapping, please let me know: comments always read.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Jupiter's Little Mix Master

The small spot's getting redder!

Maybe it's pulling stuff up from lower down? Like, uh, because that's what vortices do? Of course, that'll spell it's doom.

I love Jupiter. Compared to the Earth it's an easy place to understand, and cheap speculation.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Explaining the War

I've been covering the war on Israel's northern border and throughout Lebanon, as well as in Gaza, since the first attack by Hamas resulting in deaths, injuries and one soldier kidnapped. Friends, co-workers, vendors, folks in the neighborhood.

The tools available on the web such as Google's Earth and map web site have been invaluable -- to a point. Zoom in on Israel's northern border and try to move east from the coast. At a certain point, the vision gets vague: satellite imagery gets blurry around Har Meron and Tsfat, and then totally unplottable. Check out this picture: the clear settlement is a border kibbutz, to the right is a land heading east towards Meron. This obviously helps Israel, but I wonder who makes these rules? Before North Korea's test-spewing of missiles, I was able to track, in painful detail, all of North Korea in search of missile silos and other military structures. Not all that many vehicles up there, by the way, except for near where South Korea might be able to see.

Here's another example: Lebanon's Beirut International Airport versus Israel's Ben Gurion Airport. Which one do you think makes for better targeting?

So someone has pull with Google. Microsoft's Live site solves the problem by simply not providing high-resolution shots at all of Israel, but it's the same story on the Lebanese side.

I'm glad tactical information about Israel isn't being made available to Iran for targeting. Google is living up to its motto of doing no evil. But I think it's interesting that that ability is being governed according to what seem to be United States interests.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Sneak Appearance

I've been appearing recently in a column by a rather engaging reporter named James Rogers. It's nice to have one's opinions solicited. It's not as if I've been lacking in that respect. I suggest checking out his blog; he's got a lot of crisp things to say.

Monday, April 17, 2006

ERCOT's Fair Weather Operations Center

For those of us needing to keep large infrastructures up, but not in the Homeland Security fold, utility web pages of agencies (e.g., water, power, dams, and transportation) are great ways to know what's happening.

Today ERCOT lost balance of its grid. Odd how just a few hundred thousand kilowatts of demand can do that. Grids started losing power as the grid controllers flailed around, trying to stabilize things (I have a connection on the inside confirming this). Blackouts during rush hour -- a great thing to see.

The ERCOT web page, which, during easy times shows a real-time 'whats what' of power demand and operations, promptly keeled over. At this writing I've been requesting current status pages for about half an hour, with intermidable 'loading...' as the only result.

One would think that with all the blather about how great the Texan power grid is, they could at least keep a web page up when things start getting hot. Two thumbs down, ERCOT.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Intel using Apple as a Whip for PC Manufacturers?

I had two interesting conversations this past week. One was with some Intel mid-range folks, who were pushing really hard for my organization to embrace the new Intel Macs. We're currently freezing all Apple purchases, because some of our key software doesn't work on the new platforms (and, no, it's not a 'Mac Classic mode' issue).

They were keen to tell me all about the cool features of their dual-core processor, and made appropriately sexy-sounding noises about upcoming 'multi-core' boards. This compared to Steve Jobs' folks, who don't know themselves when their sales lives are about to change.

They were especially interested in talking with me about their onboard desktop management and enterprise management tools, which, for me, is a major stumbling block in deploying yet more unmanageable machines. (Okay, okay, they _are_ manageable, they just don't play with any of the same sets of tools we use for our PC-based systems.)

Today I met the Apple SE, a breath of fresh air when dealing with vendors. Call's 'em as he sees 'em. I asked him whether Apple was going to do anything with all the neat, new tools their platform now affords. Being a Jobbite, of course, he had no roadmap. But, he pointed out, it would sure be funny to see how this played out with the PC makers. After all, he said, Intel didn't dedicate over a thousand folks to get Apple, a tiny market player, retooled for their chipset; there had to be more to it.

Imagine the scramble if Intel popped Microsoft out of the desktop management business, just like popping a CPU out of a board. What's better, hardware-level management regardless of operating system, or hoping that booting and loading all those gajillions of layers of drivers succeeds before updating a computer?

I think Microsoft has a lot of changes in store. Not counting, of course, getting Vista out the door and into the market. I'm still not seeing the value of bloated operating systems.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Kyoto Meets Komen

I can't run the only organization that has this problem. On one hand, our plant management folks are talking about the millions of dollars we can save each year in deploying power management software on our computers. With over one hundred sites, all those humming computers between 5PM and 8AM, a lot of heat is getting cooled for no particular reason.

At the same time, the rise in grid computing (in which I have more than a passing interest), demands CPU cycles to be used to help create cures for cancer, new peptide polymers to create the latest designer drug to fight the dreaded liver spots, or seaching for Alf's home planet.

There's no confluence of interests in the cube farm. Sure, monitors can be powered down. With flat screen monitors, the heat difference is hugely lowered anyway. But that CPU, twiddling its digital thumbs for of most it's glacial interaction with humans, can't both effectively race for the cure while simultaneously give the HVAC systems -- and our environment -- a break.

The solution is to move grid computing away from the desktop, where the erg ROI is shaky and the grid software becomes an additional load on the desktop TCO, and back to the server. With their ability to manage larger jobs better, and with concomitantly faster payoffs, grid computing can be better accomodated. This is the logical direction: the grid community's ROI is better and the incremental cooling costs are better managed in a more efficient and better controlled environment.

And we'll let our faithful desktop servants sleep when we leave them at the end of the day.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

ROTFLOLing and memetics

Just a quick pointer to a blog I posted about language changes being decried by American linguists. Where we used to have words change flavor and meaning, such as "Gay" going from happy to queer (which used to mean odd), we now are integrating shocking, non-mellifluous acronyms like YMMV instead of the good old, red-blooded ones like scuba and radar.

Technology has been at the forefront of linguistic change since it's emergence as a consumer tool. Our transition from the Information Age to the Knowledge Age continues this trend with words like data-mining, blogging and podcasting.

Our ability to transmute reality is the core motivator to the transformation of language and the universal adoption, across languages, of their defining lexicon.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Blugging a Great Tool

Blugging being Blog plugging. Better than bluckstering (from huckster).

Anyway, pbwiki is a fantastic tool. I use it in a variety of ways:
  • It's the repository for my multi-novel, screenplay and short story universe. It includes a handy encyclopedia and translating dictionary, as I had to invent a language along the way.
  • I use it to log all my writing project links. I write from mulitple computers, and keeping a wiki of projects and links is a great way for me to plug in and work from everywhere.
  • It's a powerful novel writing and editing tool. I can have people look at chapters in progress and provide their feedback, without requiring any particular manufacturer's word processing software or even language.
  • Next project is to use the pbwiki vehicle to put up a comprehensive family history, complete with video snippets, photos and reportage. Most of my family didn't survive the Holocaust, but I interviewed my mom. 15Gb of video and over a thousand photos can be neatly linked with a single pbwiki
I'll spare you the marketing gorp the pbwiki folks supplied me -- I like my peanut butter crunchy. But I will eacho this: it took me about five minutes from the time I registered for the wiki to the time I had the framework for the wiki up and running. And it's been betting better and better, faster and faster.

If Google has the requisite wisdom, it will purchase pbwiki and fold it into blogspot. That would make yet another game changer for Google.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Gentle cyber-bullying or market slanting?

Microsoft is continuing its misguided methods to achieve market dominance, this time in the web information zone. MS/NBC. Note the precedence of acronyms.

I'm a free-wheeler when it comes to software tools: Microsoft has great tools, usually with fairly logical interfaces. I'm sensitive to CUIs (Cheesy User Interfaces), so if the tool is cack-handed to use, features won't keep me with it. That goes double for web sites. There are a lot that seem to go out of their way to be difficult to manage (Yahoo's portal and interfaces, for example), some that are neutral, such as Google, and some that are fairly handy if you'll only register as a personalized user and let them dump cookies to track your every move. (Yes, I know they log web pages and IP addresses. Yes, I know that properly mined, logs can provide quite a bit of information about users and their habits. Still, tack on an anonymizer and life is bearable in that regard.)

MSNBC's web site is fairly easy on the eyes, even when surfing anonymously. The simple text 'red alert' banner when there's a news flash is low-tech and simple, which is great because that's when these kinds of sites get hit hard, so why make them work harder? The cute little feedback buttons ("how many stars does this article rate") are also nifty, if useless in terms of the ROI for the individual reader (why should I care if lots of people like an article?).

This accessibility and handiness hits clear, hard walls when MSNBC feels the need. Want to watch a video? Sorry, only the latest version of Microsoft's Video Player. Want to cast a ballot on a public poll? Sorry, your browser can't handle that -- try Internet Explorer. So Apple users, Linux users, UNIX users, and those of us bold enough not to use the Microsoft products get left in the dark, unvoting, unloved.

This might make sense if there were some pay-per-view scheme going on. There is one: advertisements that play before and after the video clip. But advertisements (theoretically) play regardless of video player used. What's the profit for NBC whether Microsoft's tools are used? None, of course. Worse than that, they loose 'eyeballs' on advertisements that aren't paid. Not a logical or profitable track. And that's the key to understanding that the MSNBC relationship is little different from the MS Instant Messenger product: burn the brand in, no matter what the relative profit or cost is for the activity.

I can't even get a handle on why they wouldn't let people vote on non-IE platforms. Best I can figure, it's to up the frustration factor for users. Marketing stupidity!

So here's some free consulting advice to Microsoft (and if you hire me, I'll push to instantiate this): welcome all, but make ads on the delta.

Oh, you want it in English? Okay, fine. Allow anyone to view your content (check out CNN for ideas on how that works). But since you know what kind of browser is being used, add a commercial touting the MS product. You get up-front advertisement that you can control and tune to the user, and the user will sit though it because they want to see the video content. Perfect eyeball strategy. As for polls, use the simple bars you've been using until now but provide additional demographic or temporal information on the vote using IE-specific graphics. That way if someone wants to see the polling results as a function of time and location you can pop that up on some snazzy .NET-enabled service, while we poor Firefox slugs will have to make do with the raw data. Oh, and slap a little IE ad on the voting page as well: again, guaranteed viewing for your target market instead of cutting them off. And creating blog entries such as this one.

If you think about it, adopting this strategy can turn into a very measurable ROI for advertising investments, and you can more positively 'turn' viewers into users of your products. Okay, M$, I'm ready for my job offer...